Los Angeles School police officer Henry Anderson on his beat at Robert E. Peary Middle School in Gardena, Calif. on Nov. 5, 2015. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Do Cops in Schools Know How To Police Kids?

May 4, 2016
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by Sarah Childress Senior Reporter

This week, two Baltimore police officers will be arraigned on charges of assault and misconduct in office after a video showed one of them slapping and kicking a 10th grade boy at school.

The incident was among a string of recent videos depicting officers using force on young students. Last October, an officer in South Carolina was fired after a video showed him yanking a 16-year-old student from her desk and slamming her to the ground. And in April, a video surfaced of a 12-year-old girl being body slammed to the ground by an officer in her San Antonio, Texas school. That officer, too, has been fired.

These incidents have brought new scrutiny of the placement of law enforcement in schools — a role that has been expanding over the past 15 years as school districts have sought to increase campus safety.

Known as school resource officers (SROs), they are sworn, uniformed police officers. But instead of patrolling city streets, they’re assigned to walk the halls of K-12 schools. Ideally, these officers serve as guardians and counselors. They protect the campus from potential threats, but might also teach a class on bullying or engage with students who need more one-on-one attention.

SROs generally aren’t supposed to be involved in disciplining students unless an incident rises to the level of a criminal matter.

About 30 percent of public schools reported having an SRO in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That’s about 20,000 officers, according to the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), a training and advocacy group. In 1997, there were roughly 13,000 SROs employed by law enforcement agencies, according to federal data.

SROs have also been supported by federal funding, including more than $143 million in hiring grants from the Justice Department in the past five years.

But their presence has also fueled concerns that officers contribute to over-policing in schools, particularly those with more black and Latino kids, resulting in more use-of-force incidents and arrests that can funnel kids into what reform advocates call a school-to-prison pipeline.

And even as more school districts have hired officers to walk their halls, there has been little investment in national standards or training for this unique role.

What’s a Crime in a Classroom?

Policing kids, most experts agree, is different. Adolescents don’t think the way adults do, and they may get into trouble — such as disrupting class or playing pranks — that might require discipline but doesn’t rise to the level of criminal behavior.

“When you’re working on the street you’re dealing mostly with adults,” said Mo Canady, NASRO’s executive director. “When you’re in a building with 1,200 teens, that’s a very different environment. … You better have a sense of how to handle that. You better know how to de-escalate situations.”

Law enforcement officers may be more likely to see criminal conduct in a classroom disruption, or some other kind of behaviors that “pose no legitimate threat to school safety,” according to a 2009 study by Matthew Theriot, a professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

Theriot found that students with schools with SROs were nearly three times more likely to be arrested than students in schools without officers present. They were also nearly five times more likely to be charged with disorderly conduct, a catch-all misdemeanor charge that officers can use at their discretion. Students in the cases Theriot studied were arrested for flipping over a desk, yelling at the officer, or refusing to sit down at the lunch table when ordered to do so.

Most of the charges in the cases Theriot examined were thrown out in court. Still, depending on state law, such charges could result in a fine or even the beginning of a criminal record.

Justice Department officials share those concerns, said Matthew Scheider, assistant director of research and development at the department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. “We are well aware of the potential for SROs to have a negative impact in schools if they’re improperly implemented,” Scheider said.

That includes, he said, “unnecessary arrests, improper involvement in school disciplinary matters and improper use by school administrators.”

Canady said that NASRO trains school officers to solve problems constructively and understand that teens think differently. When he asks NASRO-trained officers how many arrests they’ve made in a year, he said, “Rarely do I come across a situation where the officer needs more than the fingers on one hand.” But, he added: “That’s not so true of officers who are not properly trained or selected.”

A Different Kind of Cop

Nationally, there is no uniform training standard for these officers.

Only 12 states mandate special coursework for SROs. NASRO offers best-practices guidelines and three- to five-day training courses to roughly 3,500 officers a year, it says. But the training is voluntary, and police departments or school districts must pay the tuition.

Such training typically includes instruction on best practices for interacting with youths. Officers learn that because kids’ brains are still developing, teens struggle to think through consequences and are more prone to risk-taking. Officers also learn to de-escalate conflicts.

Even with proper instruction, it’s up to school districts and local police departments to determine an officer’s roles and responsibilities on a school campus, particularly when it comes to discipline.

And the line between disciplinary and criminal matters can blur when it comes to outbursts or other disruptions in school, said Deborah Fowler, executive director of Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit group that advocates for school discipline reform.

“Kids push buttons,” Fowler said. “And if you have officers who are walking the hallways, who are engaging with students, and you aren’t somehow limiting their role, there are just a lot of opportunities for the kinds of interactions that we see, even with the best of training.

“It takes a huge amount of discipline,” she said.

Sean Brewer, an officer with five years’ experience as an SRO, said he sees his work at a small public middle school in Massachusetts as a “social worker, another set of eyes, a helping hand.” Brewer has attended NASRO’s training session and says he’s learned to take a different approach with young people in school than he would with people he encounters on patrol.

Brewer said that he once was asked to deal with a teen who would stand up and race out of the room, disrupting the class. At first, Brewer said he chased him down and berated him, but the boy just curled up in a ball on the ground. Later, Brewer learned that as a foster child, the teen had been taken in by a police officer who abused him. So he spoke with the boy privately and told him he could leave class if he needed to do so, as long as he didn’t leave the building. “We made a compromise,” he said.

Brewer said he understands how incidents like those caught on video recently could escalate. “There are times when you can say, ‘I can see where he’s coming from,'” he said of the officers involved. “But you have to remember these kids are in fight or flight. You realize they’re kids, and you have to back off … You have to tailor your response.”

What’s Next

The federal government has started to take some steps to introduce more accountability for the SROs it supports.

Starting in 2013, Justice Department officials began to require school districts to draw up an agreement with the law enforcement agency that clearly defines the officer’s role in the school.

The Justice Department is funding a nationwide study of SROs. It’s also backed the development of a new training curriculum for officers and school administrators, which should be released in June. Initially, the program will be implemented in select schools in Maryland, potentially including some in Baltimore.

And starting this year, the department says it will begin to require officers who receive federal funding to participate in NASRO’s training sessions.

However, the federal rules cover only a fraction of officers working in schools nationwide. Last year, federal funding was allotted for fewer than 130 officers.

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